Music is often considered as a way to enhance the learning experience in eLearning courses. However, from the perspective of cognitive load theory, the coherence principle, applied educational research, and instructional design results, extraneous factors not related to the training like music may be more of a hindrance than a help. This article will discuss how the challenges posed by background music in eLearning, especially systems training, can interfere with the learning process and how to avoid this problem.
Cognitive overload and its implications
Cognitive load theory is a theory that relates working memory characteristics and the design of instructional systems. Working memory is the memory system where small amounts of information are stored and processed for a very short duration. The basic idea of cognitive load theory is that mental capabilities in working memory are limited so that if a learning task requires too much mental capacity, learning will not occur optimally. The recommended remedy is to design instructional systems that optimize the use of working memory and avoid cognitive overload.
Cognitive overload occurs when the amount of information or cognitive activities that learners have to deal with exceeds their working memory capacity. This can happen when the learning task is too complex, when the instructional material is poorly organized, or when there are irrelevant or distracting elements in the learning environment like music. Have you ever tried to read complicated text while also following along to music lyrics? Or follow complex online instructions while music was noticeably playing? Cognitive overload can impair learning outcomes by reducing the amount of information that can be transferred to long-term memory, where it can be stored and retrieved for later use.
The impact of music on cognitive load
Music playing in the background of an eLearning course can be one of those irrelevant or distracting elements that can cause cognitive overload. Music can affect learners differently depending on their preferences, mood, and task characteristics. However, music can generally increase the cognitive load on learners by adding an extra source of auditory information that competes with the verbal information presented in the course. This can reduce the amount of attention and working memory resources available for processing the essential information in the course. Thus, adding music to a course to “jazz it up” or “increase engagement” can make the course less effective. More often, other issues in the course hinder engagement, and adding music won’t solve the issue.
The challenge in systems training
This is especially true for systems training, where learners must acquire procedural knowledge and skills for using a software or hardware system. Systems training typically involves presenting learners with verbal instructions (e.g., narration or text) and visual information (e.g., diagrams or screenshots) that explain how to perform a task using the system. Learners must integrate these two sources of information in their working memory to form a coherent mental model of the system and its functions. Music playing in the background can interfere with this process by adding an unnecessary third source of information that does not contribute to the learning goal.
Music while studying depends on preference
In the educational area, many students believe that listening to music while studying can help them focus and retain information better. This is based on the popular notion of the Mozart Effect, which claims that listening to classical music can boost one's intelligence and cognitive abilities. However, recent research suggests that this may not be the case, and that music may hinder learning in some situations.
According to researchers Nick Perham and Joanne Vizard in a study at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, listening to music while performing a serial recall task can impair memory performance, regardless of the type, tempo, or volume of the music. The researchers suggest that this is because music creates a distraction that interferes with processing verbal information. Another study by Stuart Dobbs, Adrian Furnham, and Alastair McClelland at the University of Central Lancashire found that listening to lyrics can reduce reading comprehension and writing quality, as the words in the music compete with the words in the task.
Therefore, it may be wise to reconsider the habit of listening to music while studying, especially if the task involves verbal or linguistic skills. Music may not be as beneficial as one thought and may even have negative effects on learning outcomes. My son’s insistence on British Rap while studying is a good example of music that will hinder his knowledge retention with attention focused on understanding the lyrics. That said, many people enjoy music to boost their mood while studying and to drown out background noise.
Designing effective eLearning courses
To counteract this cognitive overload issue, instructional designers can create instructional systems that optimize the use of working memory capacity and prevent cognitive overload. The coherence principle in multimedia learning states that people learn better when extraneous words, sounds, and music are excluded rather than included.
Some examples of applying these principles are:
- Reducing extraneous load by eliminating background music
- Reducing other distracting elements from the eLearning course such as on-screen text matching audio (outside of accessibility reasons)
- When you have to include background music, manage the intrinsic load by breaking down complex tasks into simpler subtasks. If the course content is easier to understand, background music is less risky.
Where music finds its place
An example of using music effectively in an eLearning course would be where the topic is cognitively easier to understand and where music is deliberately chosen to provide a tangible benefit. For example, music in a scenario in a soft-skills training would lend itself to helping a story unfold, creating suspense, intrigue, and curiosity to learn more. Or in another scenario, music could be used to convey a quite different mood or feeling to amplify that learning outcome (bright and cheerful, or somber and fearful).
A second example is in systems training, where audio sounds could be achieved through sound effects to emphasize the impact of buttons. In these examples, music use must have a deliberate and intentional purpose.
A third example is where non-lyrical music would be intentionally chosen to accompany studying or other light cognitive load tasks and boost mood. The absence of lyrics and a moderate tempo may help drown out distracting external noise while providing a consistent auditory backdrop and relieving stress via relaxing music or combat fatigue via energizing music.
A fourth example is through videos which are designed to intentionally have music. In videos, typically the on-screen elements have already been optimized for the multi-sensorial experience with extraneous words, sounds and graphics excluded. Videos more naturally adhere to the coherence principle.
It becomes evident that the role of music is not one-size-fits-all in eLearning, and it does not automatically make a course more “engaging.” Instead, it could act as an obstacle when deployed indiscriminately. The cognitive load theory and the coherence principle emphasize the need for careful consideration in the use of background music. eLearning designers can create practical and efficient courses by adhering to these principles, ensuring that the dissonance of irrelevant or distracting music does not disrupt the harmony of learning. It’s a symphonic blend of content, strategy, and purpose that leads to successful eLearning experiences. Music may have its place in other contexts, but when it comes to eLearning, silence may be golden.